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State Senate: Incumbent vs. activist in 5th District

Annazette Collins has served 11 years Illinois Legislative mostly House. Last March she was appointed 5th District Senate seafter Sen.

Annazette Collins has served 11 years in the Illinois Legislative, mostly in the House. Last March, she was appointed to the 5th District Senate seat after Sen. Rickey Hendon resigned.

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Updated: March 20, 2012 8:11AM

For nearly two decades, a huge swath of the West Side had Democrat Rickey Hendon as its state senator, but with his abrupt resignation last year came a power vacuum that now fuels one of the city’s hottest legislative primaries.

Sen. Annazette Collins, who was appointed last March to fill Hendon’s unexpired term, faces former mayoral candidate and community activist Patricia Van Pelt Watkins in a race that has Gov. Pat Quinn and Secretary of State Jesse White in opposite corners.

Collins has the advantage of incumbency. But her opponent has a big fund-raising lead, name recognition from her mayoral run and a surprising lead in the only public poll on the 5th Senate District Democratic primary to date: an Illinois Manufacturers’ Association survey in late January showing Van Pelt Watkins ahead 25 percent to 11 percent with 64 percent undecided.

Having served 11 years in Springfield, mostly in the House, Collins described her signature piece of legislation as a 2005 law that split Illinois’ juvenile and adult corrections systems and created a new Department of Juvenile Justice.

She also touted her work on behalf of former prison inmates and her co-sponsorship of the law that abolished Illinois’ death penalty.

“I really stand on my record. I think I’ve done a great job representing our community, and I want to continue doing that,” said Collins, who served in the House from 2001 through last year.

But her record is not pristine.

“She has failed us,” said Van Pelt Watkins, who finished a distant fifth in the six-way February 2011 mayoral race. “She has failed her constituents. She’s given away our resources. She’s failed to stand up for us.”

Collins ran afoul of state election law by not filing campaign-finance reports that would have shown $110,301 in receipts and $120,794 in expenditures from 2005 through 2007. She paid a $20,000 fine and agreed to apologize as part of a settlement with state election authorities.

Collins also has been dogged by questions about where she lives, a vital issue because state law requires lawmakers to reside within their districts. One-time state Rep. Patricia Bailey (D-Chicago) was forced to resign in 2005 over that very issue.

Despite claiming a homeowner’s exemption on a Hyde Park condo, which was well outside her district, Collins insisted she has always lived in the district and accused her rival of ginning up the issue.

To claim the exemption, a property owner must claim the house as a primary residence. After word broke of the matter in a Fox Chicago News report last spring, Collins quit claiming the exemption and repaid the county $2,300, weeks after her appointment.

On nominating petitions for this campaign, Collins listed as her residence a home in the 2100 block of West Warren Boulevard, which is in the district. That represents the fourth address she has used as her home in nominating petitions dating back to 2000.

The flap has carried lasting political consequences. Secretary of State Jesse White, the 27th Ward Democratic committeeman who engineered her appointment, withdrew his support after learning of the residency questions and now backs Van Pelt Watkins.

White described the senator to the Chicago Sun-Times as “the most unethical person in government. You can almost put Blagojevich beside her.”

Collins said she is at a loss to explain White’s stinging about-face: “I don’t know what changed his mind. I’m disappointed he hasn’t come to me and said, ‘I have a problem with you.’ ”

In an interview Sunday, Collins added that White’s comments were “outrageous and irresponsible.” She threatened White with a slander suit unless he apologizes by 9 a.m. Tuesday “when the courts open.” Monday is the Presidents’ Day holiday.

A spokesman for White said Sunday afternoon that the secretary of state has no intention of apologizing.

Collins, a product of the political organization of former Ald. Ed Smith (28th), said she has the endorsements of Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and Gov. Pat Quinn. The governor showed up at a late-January fund-raiser on her behalf and tabbed her to carry his proposed constitutional amendment to enable voters to petition to get ethics initiatives on the ballot. “The fact he’d try to get her to carry a bill like that for him, a constitutional amendment, is strange to me,” Van Pelt Watkins said of Quinn. “For one thing, she has a series of lapses in ethics.”

On the issues, both she and Collins favor allowing a Chicago casino and oppose imposing pension givebacks on existing state workers.

Collins supports legalization of gay marriages, while Van Pelt Watkins embraces the civil unions law already on the books. Collins said she is undecided about allowing Illinoisans to carry concealed weapons, while Van Pelt Watkins opposes it.

Collins has drawn criticism for her advocacy of training Chicago Public Schools students how to properly handle a gun — a proposal she publicly embraced but never introduced in bill form when a public outcry arose.

Collins also has been an outspoken supporter of legislative pay increases and was one of only four senators to vote last June against a spending plan that made legislators take a pay cut by accepting 12 furlough days.

“Sixty-five thousand dollars is not a lot to get paid to do a job,” Collins said during a rare floor speech in which she told colleagues she has “mouths to feed.”

The mean income in Collins’ Senate district was $33,644 in 2010, U.S. Census records showed.

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